La Paz

We did a free walking tour of La Paz. It was full of crazy facts that had us laughing in disbelief.

Let’s start with the San Pedro prison.

Ok, so it’s a prison smack in the middle of the city of La Paz. There are no guards. Instead, the prisoners manage themselves through eight sections, each with a prisoner elected as leader.

Once you’re sent to the prison, you’re on your own. You must find a place to sleep, and that means paying rent. So you’ll have to make money as well, which means finding a job inside the prison. It could be anything from shining shoes to offering your services as a lawyer, to producing the prison’s famously potent cocaine. Inmates can live in everything from three-story luxury cells with jacuzzis and views of the city to cheap cells crammed with over twenty people. Many inmates even have their families move in with them and, in most cases, the families prefer it to their former homes outside the prison.

Break the rules or cross the wrong person, and the inmates will take care of you. I mean kill you.

But it seems the prison keeps things in order most of the time. It is meant for less dangerous criminals: petty crimes, and drug charges mostly. However, if there is a hard criminal who crosses an important figure (e.g. kills a family-member of a cop), they might be taken to San Pedro because the inmates don’t accept this kind of danger in the community, and will beat them to death the moment they enter. There is a large man named “The Mute” who is in charge of raping and killing any rapists who enter San Pedro. A convenient way to get rid of people.

Back to the cocaine they make in the prison…cocaine is usually smuggled outside in one of the many layers of women’s dresses, sometimes they even pop their heads out of the roof and throw it bundled in a baby’s diaper to a runner who catches it in the nearby square: the same square where our tour began. This once happened during a tour…..a baby diaper full of cocaine hits the ground and is suddenly surrounded by tourists immediately posting it on facebook, twitter, instagram…until the police came and ‘confiscated’ it.

Thomas McFadden, a British inmate, was put into the jail for attempting to smuggle 5k of cocaine out of Bolivia. One night, he paid a cop to take him out on the town….they drank together, the cop passed out, and he took an Israeli girl back to his cell with him. He didn’t try to escape, because the other prisoners would send their gangs out to kill you before the cops even have a chance to start looking for you. They want to preserve the situation as it is: nobody tries to escape, and no guards are needed.

So the Israeli girl woke up in prison and freaked out, but then thought, “This place is amazing. What if my friends could come visit?” That’s how the unofficial tours of San Pedro began. Outside the prison a line of five short bolivians waiting to visit their respective family members in the prison, and thirty tall blond tourists waiting to visit Thomas.

Thomas has since left the prison, though tourists continued to visit. Eventually the visits became centered on purchasing the prison’s cocaine, and people began over-dosing in the prison because the cocaine was too pure…eventually the whole thing fell apart and it became too dangerous to visit.

This is what they tell you in the first ten minutes of the tour, before you’ve even taken a step.

The rest of the tour continued with the same level of unbelievable storytelling. We learned a bit of background about Cholitas: the Aymara women.

A model Cholita

We’ve noticed since Peru that they all wear these tiny bowler hats atop their heads that don’t seem to have any practical function. Finally, we get an explanation.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, Bolivian men wanted to dress like the Europeans. A large group got together and put in an order with Borsalino for thousands of italian hats. However, the italian hat-makers didn’t get the head sizes in the order. Thinking the bolivians were small, they made them small hats. Bolivians are indeed short, but have pretty big heads. The men received the small hats, but couldn’t wear them. Frustrated by the loss, they convinced the women that it was the latest trend in Europe for women to wear smaller hats balanced atop their heads.

Ok. sure.

Now they’ve really made it their own thing. Supposedly, balancing the hats helps their posture and back health. At social gatherings, women will spend as much as $1000 on imported italian made hats. If they wear their hat straight atop their head, they are married or in a serious relationship. If they wear it to the side, they are single/divorced/widowed, free to lift their skirts to show off a bit of calf to potential suitors: a very sexy part of the Aymara female body, second only to the wide, child-bearing hips that are exaggerated by seven thick layers of skirt, and a false belly ponch that they might wear as well.

They are the main bread-winners in the family, are very hard working, and are easily made jealous of each other. When they are selling things in the market, there is a concept called casera which is what you call the woman from whom you ALWAYS buy your vegetables/fruit/cheese/spices. As a Bolivian, you have one casera for each. For example, if you were to buy bananas from one woman and then try to buy grapes from another, the second woman may refuse you wondering why HER fruit wasn’t good enough for you earlier. If, after being rejected, you then go back to the first one and try to buy grapes, she’ll wonder why you weren’t happy enough with the bananas she sold you before to buy her grapes as well.

Worth mentioning: they actually have Cholitas Wrestling as entertainment in La Paz.

Also included in the tour was a bit of history of Bolivia’s presidents. You wouldn’t believe how many of them were thrown off the balcony of the presidential palace and killed. Recently.

On a lighter note, we were told about a great and rather funky initiative from the government: young volunteers from orphanages dress up in zebra costumes to help people cross busy streets, where cars don’t normally stop at red lights. The government gives them a full salary for this job, as long as the kids keep their school grades up.

The tour guides may have also mentioned some details about modern-day human sacrifice for construction projects. It’s all a bit crazy. For more stories from this tour, just pour us a drink!

The city itself is quite an amazing site to see. It’s the highest capital in the world, and sits in a steep bowl surrounded by mountains. They’ve just recently opened a series of gondolas that transport people across the city, overhead. They have plans to open several more, and become the city of gondolas. Cool, no?

We hopped on the red line to get a view of the city from above.

The city also has loads and loads of outdoor markets, selling everything from food to textiles to llama fetuses and witchy potions.

It’s been a very fun city to explore, with an incredible history. But it’s time for us to move on. From La Paz we will take mountain bikes through the World’s Most Dangerous Road out to the small town of Coroico. I have to admit, I’m a bit nervous about this road. Cliffs really scare me.

Unexpected parade at our departure


Categories: Posts in English

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